Deborah Russell won't commit to 90 percent Census response rate as StatsNZ offers Warriors tickets, makes Star Wars jokes

The Statistics Minister is refusing to commit to a 90 percent response rate for the latest Census as StatsNZ resorts to handing out rugby tickets and making Star Wars jokes to motivate people to fill in their forms.

Deborah Russell, who was appointed as the minister earlier this year, said there's been an 86 percent response rate so far, but StatsNZ Census collectors remain in the field so there's "plenty of time" to hit 90 percent. 

StatsNZ said that as of Tuesday morning, nearly 4.5 million people have returned their forms. 

"We've got all the mechanisms in place to do it. We've been working hard on doing it. We've got people in the field until tomorrow across most of the country, in cyclone-affected areas until the end of June," Russell said.

"We'll continue working at community events and the like to get more responses done. So we're doing everything we can to get it up to that, to a good return rate."

Prior to the census, Russell said she would "absolutely" stake her job on hitting 90 percent, but then said it'd be a "step too far" to say she'd resign if the response rate didn't hit that.

Newshub asked Russell on Tuesday if she'd stand down if the census didn't hit 90 percent.

"I'm certainly committed to getting the Census done and I am committed to what Stats is doing to get the census across the line," she said. 

Is she committed to hitting 90 percent?

"I'm committed to getting the Census across the line and getting the best response we can.

"At this stage, we're tracking along reasonably well, we're well ahead of where we were in 2018."

She said "across the line" meant "getting the best response rate we can".

National's statistics spokesperson Simon Watts said the census was "well on its way to missing its 90 percent target". 

"The Census has been plagued by problems, including over 1.4 million New Zealanders receiving duplicate census forms and census workers planning to take legal action over allegedly misleading recruitment processes.

"The integrity of the data collected at the census is critical, and a second subsequent census failure under Labour will have impacts well into the future across every area of government. A census is too important to get wrong."

StatsNZ has previously offered tickets to a Warriors match and food and beverage vouchers to people who fill in their forms.

Russell said she was comfortable with that offer.

"We're working hard to reach some of our hard-to-reach communities. We have a lower response rate than we'd like from Maori and Pasifika and a lower response rate than we'd like from south Auckland.

"I am comfortable doing whatever it takes to get that census across the line, especially in those hard-to-reach communities."

StatsNZ on Tuesday released a statement noting the last day census forms can be completed online before receiving a final notice is May the 4th, which is known as Star Wars day.

The title was: "May the 4th be with you – don't be the Rogue One and do your census online today!"

"We're hoping everyone enters the Star Wars spirit and commits to doing their bit to complete the census," said Simon Mason, deputy government statistician and deputy chief executive census and collections operations.

"Every census form contributes to the data needed to help communities, iwi, businesses, and local and central government make decisions that affect us all.

"That way we can confirm how many people report Jedi as their religion."

Mason said if people don't complete a census form online by Wednesday, they will receive a final notice which explains that everyone in New Zealand overnight on March 7 is required to complete the Census and if they don't, they risk a $2000 fine. 

Census collectors will remain in areas affected by Cyclone Gabrielle (the Far North and Te Tairāwhiti and Hawke's Bay regions) until June 1. 

"So join the Force (4th) and do your bit and complete your census form online today - 4 May 2023."

Mason said people who have received a pack or a letter from Stats NZ or a census collector should check they have completed all forms. 

"Some households have not fully completed the census - because they, for example, have not completed Individual Forms for every person who stayed on 7 March, or because they only did Individual Forms for people and never completed their Dwelling Form.

"You can ring the 0800 236 787 helpline to check what was submitted for your address, ask any other questions, or order extra paper forms."

People will still be able to complete their census forms online during May, Mason said.

There also will be public events and community-organised events to provide face-to-face support to people who receive a final notice and need or want help with their forms. These events will run through to June 4.